Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Kenton, Stan (Stanley Newcomb)

The sounds of Stan Kenton's orchestras were rich with textures and dynamic shifts, which still inspire fans around the world. A pioneering educator, he helped establish jazz in schools across the United States. Yet he also had a gift for running his mouth. Intensely competitive, he resented when fans preferred bands led by Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie to his own, and blamed this lack of success on the color of his skin: white. As a result, Kenton's legacy of adventures in music was tarnished by his own ill will.

        Stan Kenton, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Stanley Newcomb Kenton was born on December 15th, 1911 in Wichita Kansas. He showed and early interest in music and began taking piano lessons from his mother, Stella Kenton, when he was ten years old on an upright piano in the family home.

He spent the majority of his childhood in Los Angeles. There, he continued his musical studies with theater organist Frank Hurst, and also studied with legendary pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. Following his graduation from high school, he played in Prohibition-era speakeasies and bars in southern California and Las Vegas. In 1932 Kenton took the piano chair with the Everett Hoagland band, which also featured a young arranger by the name of Gil Evans.

During the late 1930s, Kenton performed in Los Angeles as the pianist for the band at Earl Carroll’s theater. With his skills as an arranger increasing, Kenton formed his own band in 1941, which he called the Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra, with most of the band chairs largely filled by unknown musicians.

The band began playing successful engagements at the Rendevous Ballroom and the Hollywood Palladium. The band was soon recording, and had many hits during the early 1940s which included “Eager Beaver" and “Artistry in Rhythm."

In 1943, a saxophonist by the name of Stan Getz began playing with the band, starting a string of exceptional young talents who made their first strides in the jazz world under Kenton's baton. In 1944, the band had a moderately successful single called “And Her Tears Flowed like Wine"with Anita O’Day on vocals.

In 1947, Kenton disbanded the Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra and started a new band called the Progressive Jazz Orchestra. This band recorded several different singles that year, which included “Lover" and "Monotony."

1947 also marked the start of Kenton’s exploration into Latin music, as his band covered Don Azpiazu's 1931 hit song “El Manisero." Kenton’s version, however, reached a wider audience, due to his established popularity as a bandleader. He also recorded the song “Machito," an homage to Cuban bandleader Mario "Machito" Grillo, whom he idolized. This record marked the first time a North American bandleader successfully merged Cuban polyrhythms with the harmonic complexities of jazz – six months before Gillespie did the same at his Carnegie Hall concert with Chano Pozo. Machito, of course, beat both of them to it with his own band, the Afro-Cubans, in 1943.

Just as the Kenton band was nearing the peak of its success, its leader announced he was leaving music to study psychoanalysis, though he returned to music not long after this announcement. Due to heavy touring, Kenton took a second sabbatical from music in 1949, due to exhaustion. Kenton returned to music revitalized and revamped with a new orchestra that boasted forty three members including a string section. Shorty Rogers, Chico Alvarez, and Maynard Ferguson were all members of this band when it started. Kenton combined classical music with this installment of his band and they stayed on the road for nearly two years.

In 1952, Kenton disbanded his mega-orchestra for a much smaller nineteen piece band and he also toured with Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughn. Also in 1952, Kenton brought on Gerry Mulligan as an arranger for the band. Mulligan arranged many songs in the Kenton catalogue and was given free reign to be experimental. Mulligan arranged “All the Things You Are," which featured open, spaced out piano voicings and the band's usual superforte dynamics from the brass section.

The 1950s were busy times for Kenton, both good and bad. He recorded several albums for Capitol Records, which included Contemporary Concepts in 1955, and Cuban Fire, released in 1956. However, in October of that year he made comments which would forever haunt his career. After finding out that he was bested in the annual Down Beat critics poll by the Count Basie Orchestra, Kenton sent a telegram to the magazine saying that he belonged to, in his words, “a new minority, white jazz musicians.”

Down Beat writer Leonard Feather took Kenton to task for his remarks in this telegram, and questioned Kenton’s racial views. Kenton’s band had occasionally featured black and latino performers, there weren’t many over the course of thirty five years.

In 1957, Kenton purchased the Rendevous Ballroom in Balboa, California, so that he could avoid the relentless pace of touring with a big band. After only a few months, however, he was back on the road because he was unable to attract a crowd sufficient to support the locale.

Also during the late 1950s, Kenton began teaching a series of jazz clinics at the University of Indiana and Michigan State University. While the University of North Texas preceded these programs in its creation of a jazz studies curriculum, Kenton’s camps and clinics became very influential in establishing permanent jazz studies and performance programs at universities and secondary schools all over the country.

In the 1960s, Kenton formed two different orchestras, the first being the New Era in Modern Music Orchestra which featured a mellophone, an instrument that sounds like a french horn. This band played and recorded extensively in the early 1960s and employed unknown musicans as opposed to hired professionals.

Kenton’s next orchestra was called the Neophonic Orchestra, a highly experimental group. Ironically, while this was the most critically acclaimed band of Kenton's career, it ended up doing the worst financially. Kenton was also having issues with Capitol Records, which eventually led him to start his own mail order label.

Kenton toured much less in the 1970s with his own band, and e was ravaged by various health problems: he suffered an aneurysm in 1972 and a cerebral hemorrhage in 1977. He spent most of his later years conducting clinics at various universities in the United States, before dying from complications of a stroke on August 25th, 1979.

Select Discography

New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm (Capitol, 1952)

Cuban Fire! (Capitol, 1956)

The Stage Door Swings (Capitol, 1958)

Viva Kenton (Capitol, 1959)

Adventures in Standards (Capitol, 1961)

Adventures in Time (Capitol, 1962)

Artistry in Bossa Nova (Capitol, 1963)

Contributor: Jared Pauley